I’ve come across a problem over and over again that really embarrasses me as a English major and philosophy major and writer and avid reader and student for a long time who has been told that I’m quite good at those things, and it’s that sometimes I don’t know what the hell I’m reading.
For the past half decade of my life (in other words, when I stopped reading YA novels) I’ve been wondering about the fuss around certain canonical writers, like James Joyce and Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf, so I made a list of books I wanted to read for 2019. I started out with Woolf, reading Mrs. Dalloway, which is an entire novel dedicated to a single day in a woman’s life as she plans a party. It’s a very interior, psychological look into the details of everyday life, and the prose is dense and concentrated and shimmering with poetry— so much that it’s almost blinding to read. It’s like taking a shot of thick, concentrated tonic until you’re so intellectually inebriated that you literally cannot think, much less follow Mrs. Dalloway as she flits between dreaming about her lost hopes and which flower arrangement looks better.
Of course it’s brilliant, but kind of excruciating to read. It makes me wonder what was so wrong about reading trashy YA. And it’s not just Mrs. Dalloway that I’ve experienced this pain, it’s Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 541, it’s Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it’s Kurt Vonnegut and Daniel Defoe and at times even F Scott Fitzgerald— and I’m told that these are the greats, these are the masters of the English language and their work is the stunning epitome of writing at its finest— and I feel so so stupid.
I used to think that good writing was supposed to be kind of allusive, like it had to be mysterious and hard to understand in order to be meaningful, as though the lack of coherence or the superfluous language was what created this illusion of meaning. It’s like instead of saying “this is a gray crayon”, you say, “I twirl between my fingers the truncated trunk of an elephant, gas of overcast clouds in cylinders, the cigarette, intoxicating the youth with their ability to draw, to live, to create.” Did you know I was talking about a crayon? NO! That’s just bad writing!
And I’m not saying that Virginia Woolf is a bad writer. She’s amazing. Kurt Vonnegut’s amazing. Ray Bradbury is (belches) amazing. I just wasn’t trying hard enough. I need to read with a pen in hand, a book that I can write in the margins, possibly a few people to discuss it with for that good ol’ intellectual discourse. I need to put in more effort, more labor to reap the benefits of such masterful works. But how much effort, how much labor, how much highbrow diction and intertextuality and obscure allusions and plots buried so deep within poetic language that it’s barely there— how much before it takes the pleasure out of reading? Before I can write it off as being pretentious? Before I stop feeling like I’m stupid?
And maybe this entire essay is just me musing about my own stupidity— maybe genius works, in some way, by the power dynamic of the master showing off and the reader shaking his head in obedient confusion, like “oh yeah, you are a really good writer, because… I have no idea what the hell you’re saying!” Maybe it’s a failure of the education system to teach us to be better readers, maybe it’s a failure of the culture of the twenty-first century to want things fast and to want them NOW, even our literature, or maybe we’re all just a bunch of foundering idiots— or maybe it’s just me— but in the meantime, I really do want to know what all the fuss is about with this godforsaken book. I got my pen. Got my copy that has decent sized margins. I just gotta keep reading.